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What you need to know about the ‘brain-shrinking’ virus now appearing in the US

The Zika virus is thought to be behind a disturbing rise in the number of babies being born with underdeveloped brains in Brazil.

A baby with microcephaly is bathed at his home in Brazil, where the Zika virus was first detected last year.
A baby with microcephaly is bathed at his home in Brazil, where the Zika virus was first detected last year.
Image: Felipe Dana/AP/Press Association Images

A MOSQUITO-BORNE virus linked to serious birth defects in thousands of babies in Brazil has been detected in three people in Florida, health authorities said on Wednesday.

The first two cases of Zika were found in people who visited Colombia in December, while the third involved a person who travelled to Venezuela last month.

The news came as the United States this week warned pregnant women to avoid travel to 14 countries and territories in the Caribbean and Latin America because of the virus, which has quickly spread across the region in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, last week, officials said a baby in a Hawaii hospital was the first to be born in the US with a birth defect linked to Zika, which the child’s mother is thought to have contracted in Brazil and passed on in the womb.

Here are answers to some of the questions you might have about the disease.

What is Zika? 

The virus takes its name from the Zika forest in Uganda, where it was first discovered in 1947.

It is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which also spreads dengue and yellow fever, and can be transmitted by pregnant women to their foetuses.

Though common in Africa and Asia, the disease only began spreading in the western hemisphere last May, when an outbreak began in Brazil.

How does it affect people? 

Zika causes only mild illness – fever, rash and joint pain – in most people and is rarely fatal.

The symptoms generally appear within three to 12 days of the mosquito bite and usually go unnoticed.

In Brazil, however, there has been an exponential rise in cases of a rare birth defect thought to be linked to the virus.

Brazil Zika Virus A researcher at the University of Sao Palo holds a container with female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Source: Andre Penner/AP/Press Association Images

The birth defect is called microcephaly and involves babies being born with smaller than normal heads and brains.

The condition is usually the result of the brain not developing normally in the womb or growing as it should after birth.

In severe cases, babies with microcephaly may have seizures, vision problems and developmental disabilities.

Is there a direct link between microcephaly and Zika?

The verdict is still out. The rate of microcephaly did increase significantly as thousands of babies were infected with the virus in Brazil, but it can also be caused by other viruses and genetic disorders.

Brazilian health officials believe it is connected to Zika, and some have unofficially advised women against getting pregnant, but the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is continuing to reserve judgement.

Have people in the US contracted it before?

At least 26 travellers returning to the country have been diagnosed with Zika since 2007 — all of them believed to have caught it overseas.

Since 2014, the state of Hawaii has documented six people as having caught the virus in other countries, but there is no sign the disease spread to other people on the islands.

In Puerto Rico, a US territory, one person who had not travelled was also diagnosed with the illness last year.

Contains reporting by AP

Read: Seventeen children among dead as boats capsize off Greece

Read: Nationwide warning from HSE: Stay away from A&Es if possible

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